Lionel de Rothschild’s horticultural heritage at Exbury Gardens


Regardless of the skill of the gardener, climate and soil play a crucial role in the success and botanical content of any horticultural endeavor. The relatively mild climate of the south coast of England has resulted in the development of a number of beautiful gardens, stretching from the tip of Cornwall, over 500 miles of coastline, to Kent.

In the west, the influence of the Gulf Stream is the strongest. Average winter low temperatures are around 4 ° C in West Cornwall and spring frosts are rare (although a late frost can be extremely damaging to the flamboyant, tender flowers of the magnolia). This, with an average rainfall of over 750mm per year, has made the county a paradise for Sino-Himalayan woody plants.

The gardens of Caerhays Castle are famous for their collections of huge magnolias and camellias, as well as less common species such as Michelia doltsopa and Lindera communis. Heading east towards Torpoint, the grounds of Antony House – the home of the Carew-Pole family – is home to a superb collection of camellias. Set in a valley setting with the plants arranged on the banks and a winding path at the bottom, the feeling of walking through an imposing flowery jungle when the bloom of Antony’s camellia is overwhelming. The theme continues along the southern coast, with gardens – and entire regions – notable for thriving plant communities that would struggle to survive elsewhere, like the Torbay Palm (Cordyline australis), which graces the waterfront of the town of Torquay in South Devon.

A misty May morning in Exbury © Colin Roberts

Further east, Hampshire is just as rich in beautiful gardens. The county is home to the historic Highclere Castle landscaping by Capability Brown, and Mottisfont Abbey’s chronologically mixed sack of gardens, developed in stages over the past 150 years, including the Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Collection, located in what was the walled vegetable garden, is the best known.

When Lionel de Rothschild searched for a suitable site to fulfill his horticultural ambitions, Hampshire hit the right notes. De Rothschild, a descendant of the banking dynasty, had been living in Inchmery House County for eight years, planning a large garden that never really came to fruition, when the neighboring estate of Exbury became available.

He had moved to the area to be closer to his friend John Scott Montagu de Beaulieu, who shared de Rothschild’s passion for cars and fast boats; in 1906, they set a new water speed record at 28.8 knots. Three years earlier, de Rothschild had been fined £ 5 for driving a car at excessive speed (22.5 mph) on the Great North Road.

Rhododendron and magnolia at Antony House in Cornwall

Rhododendron and magnolia at Antony House in Cornwall © National Trust

Exbury was once the home of a branch of the Mitford family, who settled there in 1726 and developed the gardens in the quaint style that prevailed at the time. The Mitfords sold the estate to John (later Lord) Forster. Forster lost his sons and heirs in World War I and, heartbroken, left Britain to assume the role of Governor General of Australia, selling Exbury to de Rothschild in 1919.

The estate consisted of approximately 2,000 acres, bordered by the Beaulieu River to the west and the Solent to the south, the latter contributing to the beneficial microclimate that contributed to the successful creation of the garden.

The last decades of the Victorian era until the beginning of the interwar years were a period of insatiable interest in collecting plants, dominated by a number of wealthy connoisseurs with both fanaticism of collectors enthusiasts and the financial means to sponsor the great plant hunters of the day. With luminaries such as the Loders of Leonardslee in West Sussex, the Williams family of Caerhays Castle and the Aberconways of Bodnant in Wales, de Rothschild used the skills of botanical adventurers buccaneers such as Frank Kingdon-Ward and George Forrest. Working mainly in China, they brought back seeds and plants of rare species including Rhododendron wardii, Paeonia rockii and Rhododendron forrestii.

Lionel de Rothschild (second from left wearing a hat) with guests at Exbury in the early 1930s

Lionel de Rothschild (second from left wearing a hat) with guests at Exbury in the early 1930s © Rothschild Archive London

In order to prepare the 200 acres of Exbury Gardens for impending plant collections, de Rothschild set out to create a suitable infrastructure. Low summer rainfall can have a detrimental impact on plants basking in the humid atmosphere created by the Himalayan mists all year round. To give them the best chance of success, more than 22 miles of underground irrigation pipes were installed, a reservoir dug, and a 100-foot water tower was built from the local red brick. So that the soil is in the best possible conditions, 150 men worked for 10 years to double-dig it; turning the topsoil and subsoil and incorporating organic matter to improve structure and fertility. The spent hops were also dug out to increase the acidity of the soil.

De Rothschild had a keen eye for detail and an understanding of a designer’s spatial makeup, successfully creating areas of privacy as well as expansive views. If something didn’t work, he was known to “take it for a little walk” (move it to another part of the garden) or just throw it on the bonfire. He also understood how to use color and light to showcase plants. This is also evident in de Rothschild’s early adoption and mastery of the Lumière brothers’ autochrome plate photography process. His love of fast cars is also evident at Exbury – the paths were designed to be wide enough for him to drive his Armstrong-Siddeley motor car at high speeds.

The Rothschild house in Exbury

The Rothschild House in Exbury © Frank Naylor / Alamy

De Rothschild believed that the floral arrangements created at the time in herbaceous borders by designers such as Norah Lindsay and Gertrude Jekyll could be transposed onto a much larger canvas using larger, mostly woody plants, and he set out to prove it to Exbury. . Along with the collaborative plant hunting expeditions, there was also competition with other breeders, and his head gardener was sent to collect pollen or seeds from other areas to help Exbury’s hybridization program. . This system was housed in greenhouses that spanned over four acres and housed collections of rhododendrons and tender orchids, as well as the apparatus needed to reproduce the 1,210 hybrids bred during de Rothschild’s tenure. Of these hybrids, 462 were considered worthy of nomination, and an incredible 238 of them received awards from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Today, the garden is home not only to one of the UK’s finest collections of rhododendrons, but also to the National Collections of Nyssa and Oxydendrum, extensive bulb and hydrangea plantations and the largest collection of nerins in the world – more than 20,000 plants and 900 different hybrids. .

De Rothschild was clearly not lacking in energy and vigor; he combined his horticultural interests with his role in the family banking business, NM Rothschild & Sons, and a political career as a Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Even towards the end of the remarkably short 20 years it took to make the garden, he dreamed of new features. A huge arboretum was planned, which he intended to plant with examples of every tree hardy enough to grow in the British Isles. Unfortunately, this was pulled up for farmland in an attempt to grow more food after WWII.

Camellia inspiration at Caerhays castle

Camellia inspiration at Caerhays Castle © Charles Hawes / GAP Photos

De Rothschild continued to work for the family bank until his death in 1942 at the age of 60, describing himself as a “leisure banker – a gardener by profession”. Exbury is now run by a charitable foundation, whose board of directors includes his great-granddaughter, Marie-Louise Agius, whose choice to become a garden designer was inspired by Rothschild’s great Exbury project.

Matthew Wilson is Managing Director of Clifton Nurseries, London

Photographs: Brian Little; Colin Roberts; National trust; Paul Félix Photography / Alamy; Rothschild Archives London; Frank Naylor / Alamy; Mark Bolton / GAP Photos; Charles Hawes / GAP Photos


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